Tag Archives: Chicago

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional
path

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.

A Survival Guide for the Right in Leftist Academia

Back in 2010, University of Illinois, Chicago, Professor and former
Weatherman radical Bill Ayers gave a presentation on Public Pedagogy at the
American Education Research Association annual meeting. Ayers, then a member of
AERA’s governing board, made the claim that he, Bill Ayers, was really not a
terrorist. Ten of the first 11 sentences in the talk abstract were in the first
person singular, before Bill Ayers switched gears to say that really, any
violence Bill Ayers might have encouraged merely came in response to the evils
of the U.S. government.   

Continue reading A Survival Guide for the Right in Leftist Academia

How Administrations Undermine Their Faculties

the fall of the faculty.jpgIt’s no secret that America’s colleges and universities have become bastions of political rectitude. This is often attributed to the left-liberal political orientation of the faculty. Typically, however, the administration, not the faculty, is the driving force behind efforts to promote campus diversity, to build multicultural programming and to regulate campus speech.  The president of the University of Rochester, for example, recently announced a 31-point “diversity plan” saying that diversity was a “fundamental value” of his university.

What accounts for the solicitude shown by university administrators for this progressive political agenda?  The chief reason is that a pitched battle for control of the university is under way, and by championing left-liberal causes administrators hope to bolster their own power

Who Wins and Who Loses at the Parking Garage?

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reserves 25 parking stalls for hybrid cars at the entrance of its parking garage. Likewise, Xavier University in Cincinnati assigns 9 close-in spaces for low-emission, high gas-mileage cars. Both parking allocations were guided by LEED standards– Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an internationally recognized green-building certification system, equivalent to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for environmentally friendly buildings.

So decisions to favor certain kinds of cars are a good thing, right? Well, no. Ask yourself, who buys these cars? Various surveys show such buyers are more urbane, highly educated and financially better off than the average American–71 percent of Prius owners make more than $100,000 a year.
The 2007 Scarborough Research lifestyle survey of 110,000 adults, revealed hybrid owners are much more likely to go skiing, hiking, practice yoga and to consume organic food, yogurt, and decaffeinated coffee than the general population.
To frame this issue from a “critical perspective” so favored by many in the professoriate, we need to ask: Who is privileged and who disadvantaged by LEED parking standards? The privileged are mostly mature, well-to-do, highly degreed members of the leisure class. Those disadvantaged by LEED parking standards are the less well-off and the working poor: campus employees in such fields as landscaping, janitorial, secretarial, law enforcement, and food services, often disproportionately female, African-American and Hispanic. Because the approved cars are primarily three or fewer years old, LEED standards favor white-collar over blue-collar workers as well as married couples over single parents, and people who typically can only afford to purchase older, used cars rather than the new cars that qualify for reserved spaces.
LEED standards short-change large families. Buyers of vans, pickups and SUVs all tend to have more children than buyers of standard vehicles. Younger buyers tend to lose out too: only 2 percent of hybrid owners are 24 or younger.
Academics often tell students that citizens with the advantages of wealth, education, and breeding have an obligation to show empathy with and respect for the lives of those who do not possess the social, intellectual or economic capital of society’s privileged classes. If they really believe this, one thing they can talk to their students about is how the LEED standards really work.

The Cave-Dwellers of Shimer

20071204_Shimer_color_trans_bckgrd.jpgOn 19 April, the board of trustees of Shimer College in Chicago, by an 18 to 16 vote, ousted Dr. Thomas Lindsay from the presidency after little more than a year of service. For sixty years, tiny Shimer (about ten faculty and 100 students) has touted itself as a Great Books college on the Robert Maynard Hutchins plan. Students converse about the content of texts with one another, guided by a professorial facilitator employing the Socratic method. The experience, it was believed, would “sustain a life-long passion for learning.” Accordingly, Shimer constructed and reconstructed its mission statement to reflect—and to extend— Hutchins’s ideals. Since 1996, the ambitious Shimer educational experience purported to prepare students for “active citizenship,” not just in the United States, but “in the world.” After four years of matriculation, Shimer’s graduates would learn to shun “passivity” for “responsible action” by moving “beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust.”
Dr. Lindsay came to Shimer from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) where he served as deputy director and oversaw We the People, a well-regarded program designed “to encourage and enhance the teaching, study, and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles.” There he attracted national attention with impressive publications and lectures on how to teach the principles of the founding to the American people. Inaugurated as Shimer’s thirteenth president In January 2009, he set to work trying to elevate an institution possessed of noble goals but gasping from slipping standards, radical egalitarian governance structures, a bare-cupboard endowment, and a long history of financial distress, including several bankruptcies. Re-accreditation itself was hanging in the balance. Dr. Lindsay expanded to thirty-four the number of sitting members on the board of trustees to include educators and philanthropists who could help Shimer out of its chronic fiscal woes. Raising money in good times requires persistence and long hours to persuade prospective donors. During a recession, the task can seem Sisyphean. Dr. Lindsay says he spent two out of every three days during his first year at Shimer on the road with tin cup in hand.
Many at Shimer made known their dislike of Dr. Lindsay from the outset. Despite his obvious relish for the Great Books, many saw him as an outsider with a suspicious agenda. They complained when they discerned that he might be moving to make the founding documents of the United States more central to a Shimer education. In The Federalist Papers, a work that Dr. Lindsay would have liked Shimer’s undergraduates to read cover to cover, Publius devotes the majority of the eighty-five essays to the republican character of the Constitution. Of the two species of popular government, republicanism had refining, insulating features that democracy did not. In fact, in The Federalist Papers, the word democracy appears less than a dozen times and when discussed in its pure form draws a pejorative contrast. In a society composed of a small number of persons, Publius warns, the “citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and they “are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues” of others. One would be hard-pressed to find in the United States an institution of higher learning with a more radically egalitarian and democratic structure than Shimer’s. Three faculty members and two students sit as voting members on the board of trustees. Shimer’s representative assembly consists of all students, faculty, and staff, with one vote each. Dominated by activist students, the assembly has set itself up as the moral authority of the college, and members reference the Assembly’s majority votes as if they were exquisite expressions of Rousseau’s general will. When dissidents protested that Dr. Lindsay was not sufficiently steeped in Shimer’s traditions read that he refused to kow-tow to the majoritarian voice of the predominant element in Shimer’s Assembly.

Continue reading The Cave-Dwellers of Shimer

The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

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The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

Continue reading The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

Our Academic Freedom Forum

Congratulations to Minding the Campus for its forum on academic freedom. Saying something constructive about academic freedom doesn’t look all that difficult. It is one of the core doctrines of higher education. It has an abundant history, full of colorful characters, eloquent declarations, incisive legal arguments, and enlivening controversies. Yet somehow University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer managed to turn these ingredients into rhetorical sludge and draw disdain from left, right, and middle.
Peter Sacks faults Zimmer for hypocrisy. Zimmer promotes the principle of academic freedom the way The Museum of Modern Art promotes a niftily designed egg-beater: as something to gaze at under glass, not as a tool for frothing eggs. Academic freedom in actual use, says Sacks, is just a pretext for private universities to remain exclusive.
O’Connor and Black spot the Big Silence in Zimmer’s account of academic freedom: he says nothing about the duties that faculty members must shoulder if they assume the “right” to academic freedom. High on that list of duties is the need for disciplines to enforce tough professional ethics. Because these days, that enforcement has withered, and academic freedom in the true sense is pretty much a dead letter—just another rationale for privileged people to do whatever the hell they want.

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Is Academic Freedom In Trouble?

The president of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer, spoke at Columbia University on October 21st on the topic, “What Is Academic Freedom For?”
Minding the Campus invited several academics and other observers of the campus scene to post brief reactions to President Zimmer’s remarks. The comments are from Peter Sacks, Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black, Adam Kissel, John K. Wilson and Candace de Russy.

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Milton Friedman Still Haunts Chicago Faculty

The efforts of some of the University of Chicago’s faculty to derail a planned research institute named after the university’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) is full of delicious ironies. In a June 6 letter to Chicago’s president, Robert Zimmer and its provost, Thomas Rosenbaum, more than 100 professors—not a single one from Chicago’s prestigious economics department, where the free market-promoting theories of Friedman and his colleagues became known as the “Chicago School” and generated several more Nobel economics prizes—complained that the university would be forsaking its commitment to “strong intellectual diversity” in establishing its proposed Milton Friedman Institute that would, as one of its founding documents states, emphasize economic analyses that “respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services.” Non state-controlled markets and individual freedom seem to be anathema to the literature, music, anthropology, and divinity professors who signed the anti-Friedman Institute letter, which predicts that the institute “will inevitably be a powerful magnet for scholars and donors who share a specific set of interests and values to the exclusion of others, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.”

Of course, as Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has pointed out, the University of Chicago already has a number of programs that promote a “specific set of interests and values to the exclusions of others, whether…openly acknowledged or not”—except that those interests and values are on the acceptable left, not the anathematized right. For example, Chicago boasts a Center for Gender Studies, where “colonialism” seems to be a major topic of faculty research, along with “feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer studies.” Indeed, the letter to Zimmer and Rosenbaum included the chairman and associate director of the gender studies center among its signatories. Similarly, the university’s Center for Race, Politics and Culture is also colonialism- and gender-fixated, sponsoring a three-semester-long course in “Colonizations,” along with other “courses that posit race and racialization in comparative and transnational frameworks; highlight the intersection of race and ethnicity with other identities (gender, class, sexuality, and nationality); and/or interrogate [that’s a two-dollar synonym for “analyze”] social identity cleavages within racialized communities.”

Continue reading Milton Friedman Still Haunts Chicago Faculty

Milton Friedman Still Irritates Some Professors

A group of professors at the University of Chicago—101 of them, or about 8 percent of the full-time faculty—is protesting the decision to establish an economics research institute on campus to be named after Milton Friedman. Their letter to the president of the university says the naming would “reinforce among the public a perception that the university’s faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity.”

Good grief. This must be one of the rare times when a significant number of professors fretted about the lack of intellectual diversity on a major campus. This kind of concern did not surface when one survey after another showed that campuses are dominated by liberal and Democratic professors. Instead we got rationalizations: conservatives weren’t bright enough to climb the academic ladder, or they were too money-hungry to head for the campus at all. The lack of real diversity isn’t bothersome to the protesters, but the “perception” created by naming a center for a famous, Nobel-winning, free-market economist is disturbing. “For many people who travel around the world, the university has had a pretty bad reputation that is tied to the Chicago school and economic principles that Milton Friedman advocated,” said Yali Amit, a University of Chicago statistics and computer science professor.

The protesters are also convinced that the new center “is a right-wing think tank being put in place,” in the words of Bruce Lincoln, a professor in the history of religions at the U. of C. But the university explicitly says it will welcome a range of viewpoints at the center. And Erin O’Connor, blogging at Critical Mass adds this: “Friedman himself was hardly pigeon-holeable—as a libertarian, he believed in free markets, but he also helped end the draft and advocated the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution. But these things are lost on the faculty protesters, with their blunt-instrument descriptors…”
Ilya Somin, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy says it doesn’t matter if the center attracts a disproportionate number of libertarian and conservative scholars as long as their scholarship is of high quality and judged by objective standards. And the deep concern that scholars at the Friedman center might lean right doesn’t seem balanced by a parallel concern over the many centers and departments that identify with the left. Think of “gender studies,” “peace studies,” or Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University. Final note: for some reason the names of the protesting professors have not been released. Why not?

The ‘Third Way’ At The University Of Chicago

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 9, 2008) devoted four full pages to a new book by two professors at the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, one a professor of economics and behavioral science and the other a professor of law. The book, entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is intended to approach policies that encourage, but do not insist on, socially desirable directions.

Presumably cognitive limitations stand in the way of appropriate choices. Since people are basically inert, impulsive and often irrational they would be best off nudged into acceptable behavior, claim the authors. What they call for is “libertarian paternalism” which they argue is not an oxymoron.

A “nudge”, according to them, is a non-coercive alteration in the decision making process, e.g. innocuous details such as the pattern of lines on a road. Professor Sunstein explains that “For too long, the United States has been trapped in a debate between laissez-faire types who believe markets will solve all our problems and the command and control types who believe that if there is a market failure then you need a mandate.” He and his colleague stand astride arguing that an understanding of human irrationality can improve how public and private institutions shape policy. The presumption is that a nudge does not limit free choice; it merely provides a desirable direction.

One example used by the authors is the reluctance of employees to sign up for 401k plans even though it is in their best interest to do so. They suggest that companies adopt automatic enrollment, while retaining an opt-out provision. That would be seen as the right kind of nudge that still allows for free choice.

Professor Thaler has spent a career thinking about decision making and, in his judgment, people often opt for irrational or overly optimistic positions. For example, he notes they are more fearful of unlikely threats like a nuclear power accident then they are something more probable like a car accident.

Continue reading The ‘Third Way’ At The University Of Chicago

The Israel Lobby Destroys Academic Freedom?

The University of Chicago hosted a conference last weekend on academic freedom. Participants ranged from John Mearshimer to Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali. Don’t laugh yet. The event’s cause celebre, the Chicago Maroon reports, was Norman Finkelstein. The partipants lamented DePaul University’s denial of tenure to Finkelstein, and lectured, predictably, on the evils of right-wing pressure on the academy, and especially the insidious influence of the “Israel Lobby.”

I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Finkelstein’s a less-than ideal martyr, given his famed taste for invective language and continuing questions about improprieties in his reseach, but his tenure denial, explained as it was in terms of “respect for colleagues”, is troublesome. In that, it’s nice to hear that a DePaul Academic Freedom Committee exists, and that they’re mustering conferences, but their exertions seem focused towards the wrong target. It’s DePaul’s gutless administration that’s to fault for the haphazard Finkelstein tenure denial, not the phantom Israel lobby. DePaul has displayed a consistent disregard for academic freedom on any side of the Israel question. Their previous offense, you might recall, was the 2005 firing of adjunct professor Thomas Klocek – for putative anti-Palestinian comments. Doesn’t sound like the Zionists have completed their takeover yet. There’s no doubt that in cases such as Finkelstein’s, pro-Israel figures agitated prominently against him, but it’s very much unclear what influence they had in the actual university decision (the other allegation at the conference, that right-wing forces exercise influence over Middle Eastern studies departments, is simply ludicrous). In any case, the problem’s not that some want to lobby, but that universities might improperly give in. Those concerned about academic freedom would be better served in taking aim at the pusillanimity of University administrations rather than imagining Zionist lever-pulling conspiracies.

Third Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“Bloom’s Closing Revisited”

It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.

Introduction:
Fifteen years after his death, Allan Bloom still commands a rapt audience. This past April, his thoughts once again filled a University of Chicago lecture hall. Though he was a brilliant essayist, translator, and educator in his own right, he is remembered for his New York Times Bestseller.

On the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, we are confronted by a sort of intellectual imperative to re-examine the arguments contained therein. However, I wonder if I – as former St. John’s College student and someone whose present coursework at the University of Chicago consists principally of the study of the Greek language and of dead white males – should truly have much first hand experience of “the state [of] intellectual pluralism at today’s universities.” Nonetheless, my experiences as an American youth and as a student on various campuses have prepared me to attest to the veracity of much of Bloom’s analysis. However this may be, twenty long years after Bloom’s devastating critique, I can feel some confidence in asserting that humane learning does still continue in North America – though not as we should like it to be.

The Closing, 2007:

As someone born in the 1980’s, I write as a second generation student of Bloom – myself, a student of a student of Bloom’s. Though dedicated “To [his] students,” Bloom’s Closing was purchased in droves by the parents of his students, who yearned for insight into the minds of their close-lipped sons and daughters. Twenty years later, my generation has accidentally become the new – although, perhaps anticipated – audience of this book.

Few of us still revel in the music of Mick Jagger. Yet we are in the peculiar position of both living the world that Bloom describes and are simultaneously prepared with the critical tools and insights presented in Bloom’s Closing. Like the generation of the late 1960’s, we too are the generation afraid to say to his lover, “I love you.” But we are the first generation to know that we are afraid to say the words, “I love you.” We are the first generation both to fit Bloom’s description and to be equipped with – i.e., to know well – Bloom’s criticism.

Kulturkrise:

Bloom’s book, I believe, helped me to articulate and understand my upbringing and beliefs of youth. It provided me some of the language and analysis not yet present in my own thoughts. Though I am tempted to say that this very observation sufficiently attests to the truth of the criticism, it might be objected that Bloom’s book simply became for me a false hermeneutic by which to understand my experiences of post-adolescence. To this I would rejoin that although the trans-Atlantic etiology of the cultural crisis Bloom describes may be up for debate, his description of the phenomena is as insightful as it is accurate. I have sufficient insight into the psyche of my post-adolescence to attest to the accuracy of Bloom’s portrayal.

Today, any child can flatter his hollow intellect in declaring everything to be culturally relative. But this is simply the “insight” of the lazy. It is non-philosophical and strictly dogmatic. Unwilling to confront difficult questions, they instead withdraw into their pseudo-intellectual cave. In zealously undermining all traditions of men, modern theory has created a void, which presently yearns to be filled. The truly educated and civilized yearn for higher things.

Bloom – following Tocqueville – aptly teaches that the founding principles of our society (freedom and equality) exist in a fundamental tension with one another. Unfettered and unrestrained freedom can be, and frequently is, inegalitarian. Freedom commands that the dictates of equality be muted, but equality will not have this.
The confusion over the relationship of the one to the other (freedom to equality) probably manifests itself as a confusion in our own minds regarding what is good. Owing to this confusion, these principles were further radicalized in my mind. They came to mean for me permissiveness and license, and the unseating of authority. For reasons still difficult to articulate, I grew, unawares, into an adolescent who believed in no ultimate principles but the principles of self-indulgence and Karamazovian sensualism, the expression of “individuality,”and the pursuit of worldly gain or the satisfaction of my vanity (which seem to be one in the same thing today).

Have America’s youth become a mass of relativists, of nihilists, of hedonists, of materialists? Perhaps. But underlying it all, they are simply in a state of confusion stemming from a more fundamental confusion about the appropriate ends of a human being. But, as Bloom has so aptly put it, “All this is a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear.” Worse yet, American democratic culture appeared to be permissive of this confusion. Is it a coincidence that every American adolescence is haunted by pangs of loneliness, alienation, and dejection? Bloom accurately saw this in our preference for Catcher in the Rye – my favorite novel of youth – and Camus. We may be said to have become souls without longing, as Bloom had originally titled his manuscript – emotionally absent, psychically impoverished, and “flat-souled.”

The State of Education:

There is no word for “culture” in Greek. The closest word, one might say, would be the word paideia, or “education.” As such, a scholar of the classical world, would see the failures of a culture inextricably linked to that culture’s education. Having co-opted the method of the social scientist, Bloom examined the psyches of the “sample” available to him: the best and brightest in American universities. The psyches of the students at America’s elite universities are an image of the state of American culture, insofar as they are the product of a very high, intellectual tradition filtered down through the schools.
According to Bloom, we face today a profound educational crisis, coextensive with the crisis of our civilization. That crisis consists in the observation that we have formally defeated reason through the use of reason. Whatever we might understand liberal education to be, it is at least clear that it has partly – or in some cases, altogether – withered and died at some of America’s most prestigious universities and colleges.

There no longer exists a coherent image of what it means to be an educated human being. The departments within academia today deny the natural unity of human thought, yet they present their individual, partial perspectives as complete and comprehensive. The “new kind of education,” which Bloom saw, militantly sought to reduce all highs in man to lower motives, thereby stunting the growth of the minds of our nation. Multiculturalism in the humanities – for the mere sake of multiculturalism – has further obscured our purposes in education, having become an end in itself: openness to the “Other.”

What is Liberal Education?:

As stated above, education plays a reciprocal role with culture. Strangely, however, Bloom departs from the subsequent inference that Dewey had made, that higher education should become the handmaiden of liberal democracy. In point of fact, Bloom’s book was written in implicit but essential opposition to Dewey. Higher, theoretical thought – and hence, the university – is not naturally in the service of the city. Rather, at its best, it is the healthiest aristocratic element within a democratic society, promoting what is best and highest in man, without concern for the common denominator.
As Socrates is symbolic of the function of the university, the civilized and “humanizing” themes of a true liberal education involve the Socratic-Aristotelian question of the good life for a man. Education is said to be truly liberal (i.e., liberating) only if it promotes that single life that exercises that part of man that is peculiar to man, his mind. Humane learning should be dedicated to higher things and provide those “ideals” to which we might aspire.

True liberal education must actively engage us as human beings. Liberal education has as it end “the goal of human completeness,” but we may only fulfill our humanity in the use of reason. Philosophy – or any simply theoretical science – may be indefensible in terms of utility, but it represents something in man that establishes him as a being worthy of dignity. The static quality in all considerations of man is his nature. Humane education must pose those sempiternal questions which belong to man as man.

The very essence of liberal education for Bloom is the cognitive liberation borne of the knowledge of alternatives. True intellectual freedom is awareness of alternatives, a breadth and wealth of perspectives. However imperfect that tradition may be, the “best [minds] of the past” provide us with more reliable standards of thought and life than the ephemeral and present pieties and opinions. Thus philosophy is most needful, insofar as it is the function of philosophy to dismantle popular pieties and received opinions in the ascent from opinion to knowledge; darkness to light.

All this requires a return to the philosophical books undergirding our society. However, we must not read Rousseau, Socrates, or writers of their ilk as historical artifacts, but rather as living ideas. In order to treat of them seriously, we must understand them as they understood themselves. In so doing, we are under obligation to lay aside our faith in the superiority of modern knowledge, which we can do in recognition of the fact that the progress of the modern mind has borne rotten fruit: it has given us value-relativism and nihilism. This is what liberal education can do for us, but always with an awareness that liberal education is not essentially instrumental. (Even the things most needful can be also non-instrumental in the last appraisal.)

The Future of Humane Thought:

Humane learning is not yet dead in North America. Today one place with which I am familiar is that tiny enclave called “political philosophy” within many of North America’s departments of political science. There, scholars of the highest caliber still treat of the classics, with the seriousness of a Machiavelli. It is troubling, however, that this group represents a specialization, which definitionally seems to defy the concept of humane learning. Nevertheless, this group, and others like them, have answered the imposing question, why study Greek books? They have taken to heart Bloom’s exhortation:

For the first time in four hundred years, it seems possible and imperative to begin all over again, to try to figure out what Plato was talking about, because it might be the best thing available.

Today, there are still those who come to the university yearning for that je ne sais quoi that will complete them. There are even those who, like myself, came to the university eager to push through to a JD, MBA, or MD but somehow got diverted along the way by the ideas they encountered there. Today, it is not entirely uncommon to find eighteen and twenty year-old lovers of Mozart or Bartok – some of whom are without much formal music training or encouragement from their parents. Some of us do still long for the Continent and everything high which it represents. We long for Europe: to visit, to study, to live. Contrary to Bloom’s pronouncements, some of us do use Aristotle both as a means to understand ourselves, but also as source for reflection on our own practical or theoretical quagmires.
Humane learning is not altogether dead or dying in North America.